Combating “bystander apathy”: what to do if you witness racist abuse

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Moya Crockett
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Racism, sadly, is nothing new. But since the UK voted to leave the EU, there appears to have been been a sharp and deeply worrying rise in racially-motivated abuse and assaults. 

While initial figures covering the three days after the referendum indicated the number of reported hate crimes more than doubled compared to the same period a month earlier, recent figures indicate as much a fivefold increase. Stories of post-Brexit xenophobic division, abuse and assault are coming thick and fast, with people from various minority backgrounds being targeted.

David Cameron has announced that the government is to launch an action plan to “drive appalling hate crimes” out of Britain in the aftermath of Brexit, with extra funding for security measures and guidance on the prosecution of perpetrators.

The majority of people who abhor racism meanwhile, are spontaneously pulling together to demonstrate solidarity. Many have started wearing safety pins on their clothing, to indicate that they are an “ally” to those who might be the targets of hate crime.

“It’s important that we show solidarity with the most vulnerable in society,” says a spokesperson for HOPE not hate. “Those who seek to abuse or bully based on what they think is a carte blanche from the Brexit vote should realise they are sadly mistaken. I’m sure that most people, whichever way they voted, would abhor the abuse and violence we’ve seen reported over the past few days.”

But while solidarity is vital, it has to translate into action. Wearing a safety pin and posting a photo on social media is meaningless if we’re not also prepared to speak up if we see someone being abused for their race or religion.

Of course, we’d all like to imagine that we’d immediately intervene if we saw a hate crime being committed. But it’s a sad fact that good people often do nothing when they witness physical or verbal abuse in a public place, and it can be hard to know the right course of action in the moment.

Look at the video that went viral shortly after the referendum, showing a group of teenagers racially abusing an American man on a tram in Manchester. One of the boys calls the man a “f**king immigrant” and tells him to “get back to Africa”, before throwing a beer over him. As the group exits the tram, other passengers speak up – one woman is heard yelling, “You’re a disgrace” – but for a long time, people seem unsure what to do.

In psychology, this is known as bystander apathy. “One explanation is that you look around and see that no one else is doing anything, so you think you’d better not,” says Professor Helen Cowie, director of the UK Observatory for the Promotion of Non-Violence at the University of Surrey.

Fear can obviously also be a paralysing force. “You sometimes hear about ‘have-a-go heroes’ rushing in and getting injured, which also makes people reticent,” says Professor Cowie.

So what should you do if you observe racism or xenophobia?

Stay safe

Intervening requires courage, but it doesn’t mean you have to be a hero. Think carefully about what risks you are willing and able to take. If someone is being physically aggressive or threatening, consider whether challenging them could antagonise them and actually make the situation worse.

“Quite often, verbal abuse can escalate into violent altercations where people feel threatened or where they feel they are being directly challenged directly,” says Dr Mark Walters, co-director at the International Network for Hate Studies at the University of Sussex. However, he stresses that this doesn’t mean that bystanders should do nothing: “Quite the contrary.”


If somebody is being abused and no one else is stepping in, it’s probably because they’re all thinking the same thing: “Please let somebody else intervene.” In these fraught times, it’s more important than ever that we don’t just rely on others to help.

If you have assessed the situation and think it’s unlikely that the perpetrator will become physically aggressive, speak up. Say, coolly but clearly, that you don’t agree with their views and that they are harmful. “By remaining calm and speaking out, bystanders can actively challenge public displays of prejudice,” says Dr Walters.

Engage with the victim

Don’t let them feel like they are alone in the situation. Move to sit or stand next to them, make eye contact, and ask if they are OK and if they want to move away from the perpetrator together.

Ask for help

Depending on where you are, there may be someone in a position of authority or control who can help diffuse the situation. If you witness abuse taking place on a bus, for example, go straight to the driver; if you’re in a pub, seek out the manager (though don’t leave the victim on their own).

If nobody else around you is stepping in, ask them directly for help. The organisation United Against Racism recommends appealing to specific people – for example, saying, “You, in the blue coat.” This makes it harder for other bystanders to tell themselves that it is “someone else’s problem”.

Report it

One of the most important things you can do is report the incident to the police, so that the perpetrator can – hopefully – be brought to justice. “We would appeal to anyone who witnesses or suffers a hate crime of any kind to immediately report it to us so that we can quickly take action to catch those responsible,” says a Met spokesperson.

The obvious way of reporting any crime is by dialling 999 in an emergency or 101 in a non-emergency. If the incident occurs on public transport, you can reach British Transport Police by calling 0800 405040 or texting 61016.

You can also download an app called Self Evident onto Apple and Android smartphones, which allows you to record evidence and report crime directly to the police.

Record it

We all have technology at our fingertips in 2016. If you can, record the incident on your phone. If that’s not possible, make a note of the perpetrator’s description, including as much detail as possible to help police further down the line.

Log the incident with an anti-racism group

If you don’t feel comfortable reporting the incident to the police, you can log it with a third party reporting agency:

  • Stop Hate UK – for victims and witnesses of all kinds of hate crime
  • SARI – for victims and witnesses of all kind of hate crime, but specialises in race and faith-based hate crime
  • Tell MAMA – for victims and witnesses of Islamophobic abuse
  • Community Safety Trust – for victims and witnesses of anti-Semitic abuse.

But whatever you do, don't do nothing. Because if you don't help, who will?

What to do if you have been racially abused

If you have been verbally or physically attacked because of your race or religion or your perceived race or religion – or if you have been the victim of any other hate incident – the perpetrator may have committed an offence.

Additionally, if someone stirs up hatred of a particular racial or religious group – for example, by handing out offensive leaflets or distributing hateful content online – they may also be prosecuted.

If you feel able, report the incident to the police using the methods above, or contact a third-party reporting centre (also above), who will also be able to provide you with expert advice and support.

When reporting racially or religiously motivated abuse, it will help if you can provide as much information as possible on the attack. A full list of useful information can be found here.

The law relating to racial and religious abuse is complex, so it can be helpful to get professional advice – for example, from your nearest Citizens Advice Bureau, who might also be able to provide support by email. 

Images: iStock


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Moya Crockett

Moya is Contributing Women’s Editor at and Deputy Editor of Stylist Loves, Stylist's daily email newsletter.